Category Archives: Content

Words That Are More Exhausted Than These Puppies (Word Usage, 3 of 3)

A black-and-white image of three puppies snuggled up on their sides with their eyes closed.

In parts one and two of this word-usage series, I wrote about how word meaning changes and shared words it’s time to retire. Now let’s dig into some worn-out, tired, exhausted words, words that have become bereft of their actual meanings based on usage.

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Words to Retire (Word Usage, 2 of 3)

Our words impact our readers, so it’s important that we choose them with care.

Everyone is aware that there are some words that should never be said, especially by white people. I’m sure a few words or phrases immediately came to mind that are racist, dehumanizing, and harmful.

But there are other words and phrases that are just as racist and harmful that are used in people’s everday lexicons. Words like tribe and spirit animal and savage. Writer Simon Moya-Smith wrote an article about many problematic word usages and ways to support, not appropriate from, native people.

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Don’t Use This Word Like That (Word Usage, 1 of 3)

She shared the example of issue versus problem. These two words are used almost interchangeably these days, but they don’t really mean the same thing. According to Merriam Webster, an issue is “a vital or unsettled matter” and “is in dispute between two or more parties.”

A problem, according to MW, is “a source of perplexity, distress, or vexation” or is a “difficulty in understanding or accepting.”

MW also says an issue can be a problem, but based on the definitions, a problem is not an issue. To sum things up, issues have sides to be debated. Problems are difficulties to be figured out.

So why do people use issue when what they really mean is problem? This led me down an intersting research path about word usage that I’m going to write about in a three-part series.

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Point of View: Head hopping

Point of view is a bugaboo for many writers. Editors too.

When deciding which point of view is best for your manuscript, think about narrative distance. Ask yourself, “How close do I want the reader to be to the experience?”

In this post, I’m going to dive into various types of third-person point of view and break down head hopping, specifically.

Third-Person Point of View

There are three types of third-person point of view.

Third-Person Objective: The writing is told from an objective narrator’s point of view. The narrator only reports on what is happening. This point of view is rarely found in popular fiction. It’s most common in nonfiction.

Third-Person Limited: The story is told from one character’s point of view and keeps the reader close to the story. The reader is aware of everything this character sees, hears, feels, thinks, experiences. Caveat: if the narrator is unreliable, then the reader may be “betrayed,” or tricked, by the narrator.

Third-Person Omniscient: The story is told by an all-knowing narrator, one who shares with the reader what is happening with every character: their thoughts, emotions, experiences. But because readers are being told what is happening, there is narrative distance between the reader and the story.

What Head Hopping Is Not

Omniscient point of view is NOT head hopping. It is a specific way to tell a story that was very popular in books we consider classics today. The all-knowing narrator is a character in its own right. Its voice may be very strong and offer opinions on the characters’ behaviors and plot happenings, or the voice may be more distant and simply share what is happening with the characters on the page.

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Time Transitions in Fiction

Time passes in our stories, but communicating that to readers can be tricky.

Not acknowledging the passage of time can leave readers confused about “when” they are in the story.

But bogging down your narrative with every blessed minute of a character’s life is a freight train to Dullsville.

How do you help your readers follow the timing of your story?

First, create a timeline of events. You can do this before or after your first draft, depending on whether you’re a pantser or plotter.

I can’t stress the importance of this enough if you’re including flashback scenes or your novel plays with time in more complicated ways.

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Stage Directions

If you’ve ever been in a play, or even read one, then you know stage directions are included in parentheses to tell the actors where to go and what to do while onstage.

Stage directions are also important when telling a story. Readers need to know where characters are located in a scene as well as what the characters are doing.

But too many stage directions will bore a reader into skimming.

How do you find a good balance?

1. Keep it clear.

If a scene begins in the main character’s house and ends in the empty lot down the street, make sure you’ve written how (walking, driving, teleporting) and why the main character changed locations. Clarity is especially important in a busy scene, such as when characters are fighting or on the run. Every movement counts.

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Writer’s Block, Part 2

Practical Tools to Deal with Writer’s Block

Last week we talked about writer’s block and viewing it through a different lens. Sometimes all you need to do is shift your mindset.

But in case that’s not enough to get the words flowing smoothly again, here are a few practical tools.

1. Consider writer’s block a luxury.

Writers, such as Tim Grahl (Running Down a Dream), Steven Pressfield (The War of Art), and Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones), have all written a variation on this advice. Goldberg even suggests that you open a notebook and write “I don’t know what to write” over and over until you’re bored enough that you begin to write something else.

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Passive Voice

I bet almost everyone has been scolded for using passive voice, either by a teacher, a writing buddy, or an editor. Software designed to help you improve your writing, like Grammarly or Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar check, often flags text as “passive voice” and encourages you to revise.

Great! Who doesn’t want to be a better writer?

The problem is that passive voice is misunderstood. So what do you need to know?

Basic sentence structure:

Noun (person, place, thing, idea) + Verb (action word)

or

Subject (noun) + Predicate (verb)

Active voice is when the subject is acting:

            The flamingo danced around the stage in high-stepping circles.

Passive voice is when the subject is acted upon:

            The flamingo was danced around the stage in high-stepping circles by the puppeteer.

 The context and my understanding of the scene completely changes based on these examples. In the active voice example, I’m guessing the flamingo is onstage at a zoo or a wildlife exhibit, or that this is a kids’ picture book about dancing flamingos. In the passive voice example, I realize the dancing flamingo is a puppet being manipulated by someone else.

Passive voice is about the author’s voice! That elusive, hard-to-define element that makes every writer unique.

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As You Know, Bob . . .

Who is Bob?

And what does he know?

“As you know, Bob” moments occur when a writer uses dialogue between characters to slip in backstory that the readers need to know, of which the characters are already aware.

Example: “As you know, Bob, it hasn’t rained in seventy-nine days. We’re in a drought.”

Why is this a no-no?

Well, it’s clumsy. Dialogue should be sharp and serve to move a scene forward. It should also reflect the way people speak to one another. How many times have you actually said, “As you know . . .”

If it’s such a big no-no, why do we writers do it?

Because we’ve been told ad nauseum to “show, don’t tell.” Dialogue can be a great way to “show” readers what’s going on in a scene, either by what’s said or by the subtext of what is left unsaid. And if one character is revealing important information to another character, which has been unknown up to this point, that can be a dynamic moment.

But if it’s just rehashing info to keep readers in the loop, it falls flat.

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Story Elements (for Nonfiction Folks too)

I’m not saying that you have to make up stories, but where can you pull examples from  your life to illustrate your points? And how can you craft those examples to engage your reader? By telling the reader a story.

Story elements are the building blocks of a story. Specifically, characters, plot, and setting are the foundational pieces. No character? No story. No plot? No story. No setting? No story.

Photo by Susan Holt Simpson on Unsplash

Story Elements

Here’s a brief overview of each element with additional things to consider within each element:

Who: Character (and point of view, or whose viewpoint the story is being told from)

What: Plot (conflict)

When and Where: Setting

How: Plot (rising and falling action); Tone

Why: Plot and/or Character; Theme

The longer the story you’re telling, the more complexity you can layer into the elements. But don’t be afraid to aim for depth, even in shorter examples.

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